accessibility · competition · disability · Guest Post · Rowing · SamanthaWalsh

Row Row Row Your Boat Out of Your Semi Existential Funk (Guest post)

by Samantha Walsh

I would like to thank Fit is a Feminist Issue and specifically Samantha (who shares my name) for the opportunity to write a guest blog post.  Over the past two years I have been looking for, and thus experimenting with, new sports and new challenges. The impetus for finding new fitness activities was a neck injury that changed the way I have to participate in sport and activity.


A little bit about me

To begin a little info about myself: I am 33, I am doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto. I have held positions in both non-for-profit as well as post secondary institutions. I identify as a feminist and have an interest in social justice work.  I also have a condition called cerebral palsy which effects my coordination and ability to walk. I use a wheelchair to get around.   Much of my research and written work focuses on the social position of disability as it relates to class position and intersections of identity.  This blog post will venture in a new direct as a personal reflection on shifting your paradigm and identity.  I hurt my neck two years ago, and had to give up many of the activities I really liked, for a time.  I have been cleared to go back to most of them but, still really struggle to get back to the level of fitness I once had. It was the pursuit of new activities that brought me to rowing; and rowing which shifted the way I think about my own situation.

Row Row Row your Boat But, Wait There’s More

I took a “Learn to Row” from the Argonauts Rowing club in Toronto last year (2015). A “learn to row “is a beginner program where you literally learn to row; I was introduced to some of the rowing lexicon. I was taught how to row with the most efficient form.   During this time I had the opportunity to row a single.  I was also taught about the different adaptations that can be made to a boat to support a disabled rower. For example: A fixed seat so the rower is using their torso and arms, if they do not have coordination of their legs.  In competitive adapted rowing it is my understanding that rowers are classified based on their ability and then their times are compared.

It was also at this time, I learned the beloved childhood song “Row row row your boat”, is delightfully inaccurate, as it should likely include the phrase “Legs, back, arms” or “Oh my hamstrings”. Rowing was a full body workout and unexpectedly profoundly challenging.  I had befriended some varsity rowers during my undergraduate studies and had always thought the sport was neat.  I had wanted to try but, really struggled to find a rowing club that would accommodate the fact I have cerebral palsy and cannot walk. I had shelved the interest until a neck injury, mentioned above, made it difficult for me to participate in my usual fitness activities.  I was looking for something: that was a full body workout; that was social; not a team sport; could be done recreationally and able to be adapted.

Finding a New Sport Not So Easy When You Have a Disability

I started googling…An ongoing challenge I find as a disabled person whom is interested in their own fitness and recreation but, not interested in competition or team sports, is that I really struggle to find opportunities that provide: a challenging and comprehensive workout with a social component.  I find it is difficult for me to simply enroll in a sport ’n social league or other recreational things because, they often assume the participant will be able-bodied. The able body is almost compulsory for joining any sort of recreational sport.  For example: I have able bodied friends who are learning how to curl.  This seems like a great winter sport. It’s a fun game with the tradition of a beer after.  I know there is Wheelchair Curling. I have seen it on TV. However, I cannot find a league near me which supports wheelchair curling, so I do not curl.

I find often when I do find mainstream activities that welcome me and are reflexive to adaptation it is through a friend, a fitness instructor or coach who is excited to have different bodies in their class. I still find that the most common refrain for finding adapted sport is to rely on a team based program such as wheelchair basketball or a rehabilitation initiative. Moreover, adaptive sports equipment is often double or triple what an “able bodied” athlete would pay. For example: Running shoes versus the cost of a Racing Wheelchair. I long to be able to join beer leagues, workplace softball teams and drop in yoga classes. I am at a point in my life where my leisure time is limited. I am not interested in the lonely pursuits of excellene or segregated sports (these of course have their place). This is why, I was impressed to see the Argonauts advertised an adapted learn to row on their website. I was able to join for a fee and with very little self disclosure of my disability.  While rowing is a sport which typically favors those of higher socio-economic status it was a pleasant surprise to find out that the club had an open-door policy in regards to ability. However, I do recognize that it is my own privilege of being employed and having a disposable income that made my adventure in rowing possible.

You Are Only New Once…Or In The case of Rowing You Are New For Almost Two Years….

As mentioned above, I took a “learn to row” in 2015 and then returned for a second year of rowing in an adaptive program in 2016. I was really focused on rowing as a way to get a full body work out. I chose to row a single with a sliding seat that was comparable to an able bodied rower.  The single had pontoons on it as almost a training wheel system while, I learned to balance.  At the end of the 2015 season, I met another rower, Bill  (who was an single leg amputee) at an end of season party.  He offered to row a double with me.  In 2016, I practiced rowing both a double and a single.  While I had really enjoyed rowing a single; I liked the coaching I was receiving and really appreciated the solitude that rowing a single occasionally brought (other times it was a lot of trying not to row into things).  Rowing a double was a bit of a game changer for me.

 The Little Voice in the Back of your head, Or  If You Row the Person Speaking To the Back of Your Head

I had been very happy rowing a single.  The coaching style of the rowing club was one of positive feedback and constant things to build on. I felt like there was an assumed mutual respect. I was not in a subordinate position but, rather someone happy to learn from another person whom was happy to teach. This coaching style was in part why I looked forward to rowing, it was a happy add on to the beautiful scenery and comprehensive workout. Rowing a single though had not yielded me very many social opportunities. I did not know very many of the other rowers and often only spoke with my only my coach on the dock.  Additionally, early on I had told the club I was not interested in racing or competitive rowing. That I would be rowing just to get back into shape. Pleasantly, everyone seemed to respect this. To be fair though a novice rower does not usually compete.

The first night I rowed a double with Bill he made a point to introduce me to everyone he knew on the dock. Each person we encountered he would have a little story for. He would always introduce me with a little quip about losing a bet and having to row with him; or some interesting fact about me. I met a lot of different people very quickly.  In the boat Bill sat behind me doing a lot of the balancing and steering. He gave me feedback on my rowing.  He told me I was fast. He said I was always improving. Bill would go out in any kind of weather. Every time, I said the weather was bad, he would say something about the perfect day never comes. Often, I went with him on whatever adventure course he was set for.  He introduced me to more people. He talked to the coordinator and coaches about my progress.  He told me I should race. An interesting nuance or at least how I understood it.  The idea of racing was not to seize elite status but, to race for myself. Race as a challenge; a way to get more involved in the club; a way to meet more people. Everyone around me was receptive to this idea. I started to work on race starts, and being able to row racing distances.

Race Day

The regatta Bill and I enter was a recreational one hosted by our club. The water was awful that day.  It was windy and choppy.  At one point a coach remarked we would likely not be in the water but, it was a regatta.  But, remember, if you wait for the perfect day you will never go rowing. We rowed. It was too choppy to do a race start. The only goal was to make it to the end and not flip the boat. Just keep rowing!  We made it to the finish line. There was apparently an issue, our time was lost. I am pretty sure we lost. I was not really focusing on other boats just my boat and moving to the finish line.  When we got off the water there was a reception with social to follow.  I rowed a race, I met some new people and I left feeling better than I had in a long time.

Changing the Tide: Rowing as a metaphor for life

As someone who studies the workings of societies and social dynamics it is hard for me to believe that an individual’s success is not the collective sum of their social position and the resources they have access too.  I understand concepts of “positive thinking” or that individuals have total control over their destiny to be deeply flawed mired with classism and an erasure of systemic oppression. While I maintain these assertions to be true; acknowledging that even the opportunity to both try, and then continue rowing is made possible through a complex network of my own privilege and resources. I am forever, grateful that the opportunity to row and to race with Bill has reminded me: not to limit myself through my own expectations. Not to wait for the perfect day to try something and despite the choppy water and the ups and downs to keep rowing best you can; even if you are scared, even if you have to stop for a time. Rowing reminded me of my own resilience and ability to change courses even when the water is rough.  I am forever grateful to the great coaching staff and my doubles partner.



body image · fitness · Guest Post · Rowing

Strong and beautiful women are “heavy” women – for real! (Guest post)

I’ve been inspired to write this post by two amazing feminist-forward events in the last seven days – one of them local, and one of them global.

LOCALLY – as in, right here on this blog – the smart and beautiful Sage Krishnamurthy McEneany, who is seven years old and also wise beyond her seven years, wrote a moving post about wanting to be “strong” rather than a pretty princess, because princesses NEVER get the chance to save themselves, and because strong is pretty freaking beautiful in a woman. I cannot tell you how much I loved this post, and how much I admired Sage for writing it. Please check it out if you missed it!

GLOBALLY, the (EXTREMELY STRONG AND THEREFORE VERY BEAUTIFUL) female rowers from Oxford and Cambridge Universities made history last Saturday when they competed in the first ever women’s Boat Race on the Thames Tideway, alongside their male counterparts (who have been rowing that storied race for decades, without any commentary on how improper or unladylike such a competition would be). I’ve written a post on my blog, The Activist Classroom, about the awesomeness of the eight Oxford women who won the race – please check it out. Meanwhile, however, and in light of Sage’s wise post, I would like to blow your mind for a moment with an important statistic.

Here is a photograph of the eight Oxford women who crewed the winning boat last week:


Don’t they look strong and trim and fantastic? Which, for women raised in the world in which I was raised (North America circa the late 20th century), means: They look thin! Which, again, means: they look so small/light/I bet they weigh nothing!!

Look at the image again.

The LIGHTEST woman in this photograph (for the record: Maxie Scheske, who rows in the bow because she is the lightest) weighs 66.6kg – or 147 pounds.

Read that again: the SMALLEST woman in this photograph weighs one hundred and forty seven pounds.

The HEAVIEST woman in this photograph (for the record: Caryn Davies, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, who rows stroke because she is the most powerful and experienced woman in the boat) weighs 78.4kg – or 173 pounds.

That is right. Read it again. ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY THREE POUNDS.

It’s true, folks: strong women weigh, like, more than you think. Because muscle is heavy. And every single woman in the above photograph is full of glorious, beautiful, heavy muscle – that is why they row so fast! Here they are again, in case you could not believe your eyes the first time around:


Growing up, I was tyrannised by the idea of being too heavy. My mom, who struggled with her weight for most of my childhood, was ashamed when she was overweight, and she was in no way alone – every woman I knew was trying to eat as little as possible so she could take up as little space as possible. (As if taking up space is a bad thing!! ONLY if you drink the patriarchy juice, ladies.) I grew up believing girls should weigh less than 100lb, and grown women less than 140lb (at the most!!), and trust me – I failed this particular test multiple times. So I grew up feeling ashamed, too – even though I was probably a relatively normal weight most of my young life. Today, I am lean, fit, and strong – but my BMI is just shy of 25 (the “cutoff” that signals “overweight”). Why? Because I am an athlete with a lot of gorgeous heavy muscle – not a wasting princess who waits around for a stronger boy to save her.

Ladies, hear me when I say that the eight women who rowed victorious into history last Saturday – along with their eight very formidable adversaries from Cambridge – are the most beautiful women I have seen in a long time. I keep returning to the photos I’ve posted here, because they look so great and I so want to emulate them, in their strength and power and resilience. I ALSO want to emulate them in weighing enough to be strong, powerful, and resilient like them – which means I need to weigh a lot more than you would think I need to weigh in order to be “pretty”. Weight is strength. Strong is beautiful.



Cold water, Dr Popsicle, and people who are proud of their ability to suffer


I listened to a great episode of DNTO (Definitely Not the Opera) Saturday while driving to Stratford to meet a friend and fellow founding editor of a new journal Feminist Philosophy Quarterly.

The show’s theme was Learning to Embrace the Cold. There were lots of great interviews and you should go listen to the whole thing. But the bit that stuck with me was the interview with “Dr Popsicle.”

Winnipeg’s Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht (a.k.a. Dr. Popsicle) isn’t afraid of a little cold. Actually, he’s not afraid of a lot of cold. His experiments push the boundaries of the human body and Dr. Giesbrecht has become an internationally looked-to expert on hypothermia. His most common guinea pig? Himself.

A few things stood out from the interview.

First, his lifesaving memory aid about what happens when you fall into extremely cold water. He dubs it the “1-10-1” rule. You have 1 minute to get your breathing under control, after that you have 10 minutes of meaningful movement, and then1 hour of life.

Second, it reminded me of all the fuss about rowing in spring and fall. There’s a reason to wear a safety whistle and to keep the coach boat nearby.

Third, I enjoyed listening to him chat about who volunteers for his cold water studies. No one likes it. It’s incredibly painful. But some kinds of people enjoy the challenge. They are proud of their ability to endure tough things. While he denied that they’re masochists, he said they think differently than lots of us about suffering. He gets lots of cyclists.

You can also watch Dr Popsicle on the Rick Mercer Report:


competition · Crossfit · Rowing

2 km erg test: How far the mighty have fallen


I’m not rowing these days. Not just because it’s winter. I’m also not training indoors with the London Rowing Club.

I first stopped when I was helping to care for a seriously ill family member but even after her death I didn’t go back. I loved rowing but it wasn’t a perfect fit. There wasn’t enough local racing to keep me interested. The time spent driving versus the time spent racing seemed all wrong in the case of out of town regettas. Most importantly though my work travel schedule doesn’t fit well with taking a seat in a racing boat. I’m just away too much.

I’m okay with that. Really.

I loved rowing and expect I’ll do it again some day. I’m still excited and nervous when confronted with a 2 km erg test. When I first started indoor training for rowing, I wrote about the monthly 2 km erg tests. I liked the erg more than I thought I would and I actually won the masters women class in a local ergatta and blogged about that too here.

At CrossFit the other day, a timed 2000 m row was part of the workout. Yikes. Coach Dave asked if we had a best time we wanted to beat. The thing is I do have a best time, see posts linked above for details, but when I’m only training on the erg occasionally at CrossFit I can’t honestly expect to beat it. I settled on a time above my best ever time and aimed for that instead.

I was chatting that day with two other women who were trying to balance different goals, with varying degrees of commitments to different sports. I can rank the various things I do: cycling, Aikido, CrossFit, running…

I’m not quite a Jill of all sports, it’s easier to think of me as a polyamorous athlete with primary and secondary, etc commitments to various sports.

Rowing, I’m sorry. When I think about it that way you’re at best an occasional date.

I’ll keep my best ever 2 km time in my sights but I won’t sweat it too much if I fall short.


cycling · family · Rowing · running

Rough times, tough choices

Those who know me outside  of the blog will likely already know that this hasn’t been a very easy year. That’s the “rough times” of this post’s title. My family is helping to care for my mother in law who moved to our city this fall after a diagnosis of ALS. It’s wonderful to have her close by and we’re enjoying a lot of family time together. The disease is sad, a tragedy, but time with her is treasured.  It’s terrific that she’s here and we can see her often. When I look at the year ahead though, family responsibilities loom large.

I’ve turned down a lot of research travel, cancelling plans when I’m able. And I’m making athletic choices too. That’s the “tough choices” part of the title. But to be absolutely clear, these are choices that I’m making. Given the lot we’ve collectively been dealt I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know lots of women who take on martyrdom for their family but that’s never been me. I’m part of a large, active family of contributing adults now but even when the kids were little, I never parented alone.  If any family is prepared to take on a crisis, we are, and for the most part, I manage to feel very lucky with the people with whom I’m surrounded. (Chatting recently about this and I thought that this is a good, light way to put it, “In the event of a zombie apocalypse, I’m really grateful that this is my team.”)

With recent life events in mind I read Tracy’s post Taking Care of Ourselves: It’s Not Selfish! with added interest. Two thoughts struck me.

First, while I agree that care givers need to take care of themselves, I do a lot more physical activity than is strictly speaking necessary from the point of view of just caring for myself. That doesn’t mean I won’t do it but the caring for yourself argument doesn’t go as far one might like.

Now there are more than instrumental justifications at work. Time for me isn’t only justified when it helps others. But if it’s not instrumentally justifiable, then you need to start weighing and measuring goods. Goods for me count, regardless of whether they help others, but so too the goods in others’ lives, especially goods in the lives of family and close friends.

Second, while time for me and the activities I love matters, some activities are better than others at fitting into a busy schedule.

With that in mind, I’ve made the tough decision to sit out rowing this year. I love rowing but I could see that this wasn’t going to be a great year for rowing for me. I’m already plotting my return but for now, I need to be reasonable about what I can do.

Unlike running and cycling which I can fit in here and there, rowing means a making a commitment to a boat, to other people, which I may not be able to keep. Family illness aside, it’s tricky even with work travel and my duties a sports parent. You don’t need to just hold the race date. You need also to make all the training dates prior to the race. I’m away for research travel, academic conferences usually, at least once a month.

That might just be one the hardest things about rowing. CrossFit has lots of classes and I go three times a week when it fits. There are Aikido classes Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Running I can do with my group that goes out three times a week or on my own. I’m much less keen on riding on my own but I’m hoping to get a group that goes out regularly this spring.

I love rowing and I learned a lot. Certainly, it counts as achieving one of my fittest by fifty goals, trying something new. Rowers, I will be back!


racing · Rowing · running

Beginning all over again


I ran 2.5 km the other Thursday night, before rowing, as my warm up. How’d it feel? Great. This week I ran 4 km a few times. I’m on week 3 of my return to regular (not just dog jogging) running. Still feeling good.

However, can I also say running is hard? Really hard.

Running is the hardest kind of exercise that I do. I know that’s not true for everyone. I row with a friend who said that of course I can run 10 km since I can row for an hour. She can run 10 km and even a half marathon with remarkably little training. She’s not speedy, she’s in it for the finishers’ medals and will blog about that here later, I hope. But she’s a terrific runner. I’m not.

I run. I can even sometimes run fast. But it’s tough.

It’s running that convinced me that crosstraining is a myth. (“Myth” is a bit strong, I know.)  Running makes me a better cyclist, in some ways. But no matter how fast I get on the bike, running remains tough. Riding never seems to help my running. Ditto, I suspect, rowing. More than anything, for me, running is its own thing.

How much harder is running for the larger runner? Try poking different numbers in on the treadmill and see how the calorie count comes out. That’ll give you some idea.

The cool thing is, having done it before, going from no km to 10 km, I know I can do  it again. Aiming for no injuries this time round. Wish me luck!


Past posts about running:

My winter running plan

Six things about running

athletes · body image · competition · eating · Rowing

Lightweight rowing and disordered eating

Weight categories in sports are tough. See Audery’s post on kids and weight categories in martial arts. And I’ve written about why the Athena category in running and in multisport events is fairly useless.

Sports introduce weight categories when there are size differences that result in performance differences such that putting differently sized people up against another wouldn’t be fair. Think boxing. Or weight lifting. Larger people have an advantage.

Weight categories have been employed for centuries as a method of equalizing competition in a number of different sports. In sports where the physical strength of the combatants was understood to be crucial to their ultimate success, weight categories recognized the fundamental principle that, all things being equal, in strength sports the larger athlete was likely to be the stronger athlete. Stated in the alternative, where two athletes possess equal technical skill in a strength-oriented sport, the larger athlete is more likely to overpower the smaller athlete. FAQ, World of Sport Science

That’s true too in rowing. It’s better to be big. Rowing just has two categories, light and heavy. See LiveStrong on the difference between lightweight and heavyweight rowing

What are the categories?

“At the international and college level, a male rower is not eligible to compete in lightweight rowing if he weighs over 160 lbs. A woman cannot row in the lightweight division if she is over 130 lbs. While a good lightweight rowing team can sometimes beat a heavyweight team, the sport of rowing favors the tall and strong athlete. Height gives a rower more leverage to propel the boat through the water. Strength gives a rower the explosive power to propel the boat faster.”

(The subject of what happens when a lightweight boat does beat a heavyweight boat is a frequent source of humour on rowing tumblrs.)

Why have weight categories in rowing?

“According to the Federation Internationale des Societies d’ Aviron, or FISA, the international governing body of the sport, lightweight race was introduced “to encourage more universality in the sport, especially among nations with less statuesque people.” Lightweight events were introduced at the World Championships in 1974 for men and 1985 for women, and it joined the roster of events at the Olympic Games in 1996.”

What are the worries about weight categories?

“The practice at some colleges of using heavyweight rowers to drop sufficient pounds to qualify for the lightweight boat is controversial on two grounds. First, drop-down rowers replace “normal” lightweights in the boat, cutting opportunities for smaller rowers to compete. Second, allegations of eating disorders among both women rowers and male drop-downs have been widespread. A female college rower at the Everything 2 website tells of men “living on carrots and multivitamins for weeks while doing full workouts every day,” in a misplaced attempt to demonstrate discipline toward their sport.”

To this, I’d add a third worry. There are people in the middle who don’t fit into either group.There are, for example, women who are larger than lightweight and who can’t weigh down but who aren’t tall enough to be competitive in the open class. I met a woman recently who at 5’7 was throwing up her hands ( and her oars) and switching to cycling. She couldn’t get light enough for lightweight, despite pressure, but at her height she is nowhere near large enough make it in heavyweight competition.
You might think lightweight rowing made it possible for small women compete in rowing but in fact competitive lightweight rowers are usually well above average height for women. They’re not short by any means. They’re thin but not small.  It’s shocking to think that if I’d discovered rowing earlier and if I was any good at it (two big “ifs”) that I would have been pressured to row lightweight. The last time I weighed in the 130s was grade six! And I’m in the middle, clearly not tall enough for heavyweight.Is losing weight to row lightweight a successful strategy? Not always.  The issues are very complicated. To get a sense of the debate see National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Lightweight Rowing

“One study that’s cited a lot when talking about weight loss and lightweight rowing is this one. Some of you guys have asked me about this too – can a smaller heavyweight rower lose weight and be competitive as a lightweight? This study found that it is possible, but what I think is worth noting is that the “heavier” heavyweight athletes lost more muscle than fat mass over the course of the 16 weeks this study was conducted. 16 weeks…that’s roughly four months. Winter training through mid-spring season is about four months, so think about that if you are considering making the transition. Preparation must start well before the time you plan to fully compete as a lightweight. The rowers who suffered the greatest loss in muscle mass weren’t able to be competitive as lightweights because of the drastic reduction in power output, energy, etc.”


Further reading:

 Prevalence of eating disordered behavior in collegiate lightweight women rowers and distance runners.

This study examined eating behavior in collegiate women lightweight rowers, runners, and controls. It was hypothesized that rowers would show an increased prevalence of restraint in their eating behaviors, but not probable eating disorder cases as compared with runners or controls, because they are required to make their target weight but are discouraged from further weight loss.

Crossfit · cycling · racing · Rowing · running

Puke worthy workouts

I’ve written lots about pain and physical exertion. See here, here and here.

But now it’s time to tackle that other fun aspect of tough workouts, throwing up.

It’s a feature of almost every sport that I like that people sometimes barf. (I have teenagers at home, including teen athletes, so I know all sorts of good euphemisms but I’ll stick with “barf,” “vomit,” and “throw up.”)

CrossFit has a metal puke bucket in the corner, mostly as a joke. So too does the rowing club. And of course, the velodrome. Of course.

It’s sort of a joke but also sort of not. Vomiting does happen. It’s certainly happened to me on the bike.

“Intense exercise has a number of effects on the body. As well as raising metabolism and burning fat, it can also cause dehydration, dizziness and nausea. Whether you do cardiovascular exercise or strength training, it is not uncommon to throw up during or after a workout.” Read How to Prevent Throwing up when Exercising

I was reminded of all this this morning doing 200 m sprints x 10 on the erg, aka rowing machine, at CrossFit.

I was busy paying attention to how I felt about pain in response to commentators who think you really can’t say truthfully you enjoy painful intervals. And I’m right. At the fifth sprint, I had that silly smile on my face that makes other people question my sanity. Yay endorphins. I also had done a great job of keeping my times constant through the first five efforts.

Times ranged quite a bit, from the high 30s to the low 50s. For my first five 200 m intervals I was around 42 seconds.

But after five, my times started to go up. I stopped smiling. And by seven I was starting to think I might throw up. I didn’t. But I didn’t manage to eat again until lunch.

So, what happens to make your body feel that way? Read Why Do We Vomit After Strenuous Exercise?

High intensity interval training, in particular, brings about a bad combo. Lactic acid on the one hand, and blood going to your limbs rather than your digestion system, on the other. There are are reasons to skirt the edge of pukiness. In part, your body learns how to cope and recover and that’s important.

I’m not sure about the gallows humour around throwing up after a workout. But like the issue of peeing during workouts, I think it helps to know you’re not alone. Going hard, whether cycling, rowing, running, or swimming can bring it on and there’s no reason to be ashamed or proud about it.

“A 1992 study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition found that 93 percent of  endurance athletes experienced some type of GI symptom (e.g., acid reflux, nausea, and vomiting) during their races.” See Techniques to Prevent Nausea and Vomiting Before, During, and After Racing.

It’s an issue with any form of High Intensity Interval Training but your body does adjust. From Precision Nutrition’s All About High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT):

“Most every high intensity physical activity is a state of “crisis” in the body. It endangers oxygen supply to tissues, increases body temperature, reduces body fluids and fuel stores, and causes tissue damage.

Intense exercise creates endocrine and defense reactions that are similar to those elicited by low blood oxygen, high blood carbon dioxide, acidosis, high body temperature, dehydration, low blood sugar, physical injury and psychological stresses.

Hormonally, your body basically freaks out. Then it brings out the big guns to deal with the problem. High intensity exercise stresses the body so much that it’s forced to adapt.

As Nietzsche gasped during a 20-rep squat set, “That which does not kill me makes my quads bodacious.” (It makes more sense in German.)”

Image description: puke bucket

athletes · Crossfit · cycling · Rowing · training

Are athletes masochists?


The image above comes from a rowing tumblr, Don’t Feed the Lightweight. It’s tagged “Me trying to describe a 2 km erg test.” It made me laugh but it illustrates nicely, I think, the relationship between athletes and pain, and raises the question, “Are athletes masochists?”

What’s a masochist? Most dictionaries define “masochist” as one who requires or associates the experience of pain with sexual pleasure. But a secondary definition drops sex out the picture and it’s the non-sexual aspect of “pain-as-pleasure” that interests us here.

Elite athletes have even been dubbed “benign masochists” because they appear to enjoy the pain of exertion, says Dominic Micklewright, a researcher and curriculum director at the Centre for Sports & Exercise Science at the University of Essex in the U.K. Mocklewright is interviewed in a Wall Street Journal article on what separates those who love exercise from those who don’t. (I think the use of the word “benign” here is just a little bit “judgey,” as the kids say, okay as my kids say, since it suggests that sexual masochism is not so harmless but that’s a topic for another time, another blog.)

In my masters rowing group, we meet over the winter at the boathouse for regular erg sessions, But we also do something called Strength and Mobility training, and of course, it’s known as meeting up for  “S & M.” Nervous giggles ensue.

How close to the truth is it? What’s going on with the sports masochist?

Here are some possibilities:

1. We could think they experience less pain than the person who hates hard exercise because it’s painful. And it’s true that athletes generally have a higher threshold for pain. Have a look at Why athletes can handle more pain, Time Magazine. “Researchers didn’t crack the code, but they suggest resistance to pain can be learned over time, and an increase in exercise intensity can lead to endorphin release.”

See the article “Higher pain tolerance in athletes may hold clues for pain management,”

2. We might also think that the experience itself is different, that it feels different, that the elite hard driving athlete experiences what we’d call pain as pleasure. But I don’t think that’s quite right. Read the descriptions below. They’re talking about pain and suffering in the normal, usual senses of the word.

3. What seems different though is how the experience is valenced. You might recognize it as pain but find value in the painful experience. Suffering is good in this context, it makes you stronger, and over time you come to have positive associations with the feeling. I’ve written before about my three experiences of undrugged childbirth. Those are experiences that I thought were meaningful and I wouldn’t want to not have experienced that pain as odd as it is to say that. Tracy puzzled about suffering in her recent post on the good that comes from a tough ride.

Me, I like tough painful workouts. See one of my earliest posts on this blog, Why are painful workouts so much fun? I knew from cycling that I’d like rowing, for example. Both have a reputation for pain. I wasn’t worried about that aspect of CrossFit. Given a choice between a long slow indoor row or a twenty minute session with lots of sprints, I’ll take the latter anyday. Long slow steady state workouts bore me to tears and boredom looms larger for me than pain. Outdoor rowing and cycling, even on long slow days I do okay. That’s because I like the outside and I like talking to friends but I couldn’t do a slow recovery ride inside on a trainer without distraction. Without music, I’d be doomed and even then I might find an excuse to cut it short.

Clearly liking pain isn’t sufficient to excel sports.

Obviously fitness and strength matter more. It’s only true that she who suffers the most wins among equally well trained athletes. Suffering by itself won’t get you across the finish line first.

But is liking pain necessary to succeeding in sports? I’m not so sure.

(For an explanation of necessary and sufficient conditions see here.)

I think tolerance for pain is one asset in sports performance but there are other psychological traits athletes need. Different people bring different strengths to training and competition and I think some characteristics matter more for some sports than others.

It’s a matter of knowing yourself and knowing what strengths you bring to a sport. An appreciation of pain is something I’ve got but there are other traits I lack, such as concentration and focus during longer efforts. Time trials over 20 km and I start to write philosophy papers in my head. During rowing I often heard, “Sam, eyes in the boat.”

I’ll close with more quotes about rowing and cycling and pain. There are lots of them out there and they’re so very good.


“The hardest thing to teach an athlete is the ability to suffer. Those who know how to suffer know how to win.” US Olympic Rower Erin Cavarro

At the end of this year’s eventful Boat Race. “It’s very common for people to collapse in rowing,” explains Moore, “because they are racing to destruction.” It’s a sport, in short, for masochists. As Emery tells me: “You’ve got to enjoy the pain.” Read Rowing: the sport of masochists, Rowing is a punishing physical and mental workout. But you’ve got to enjoy the pain

“The aim is to bury yourself completely,” said Cracknell, with the kind of honesty about the event which suggests that whatever career opens up for him after he has stopped rowing, it is unlikely to be in advertising. “I like these machine because everyone else hates them. It hurts, really it hurts, but you mustn’t let it beat you. If you get psyched out by it, you’re in massive trouble. And believe me, even at the top level, people get psyched out. It’s a tough thing. It’s about commitment, not talent.” The mass masochism of indoor rowing


“Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it’s absolutely cleansing. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain… Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. ’Pleasure?’ I said. ’I don’t understand the question.’ I didn’t do it for pleasure, I did it for pain.” Lance Armstrong

“Suffering is what professional cycling is all about, and champions suffer the longest. The ability to suffer can be heightened through training, which is why racers go out on the road for up to seven hours most days during winter and early spring.” — Samuel Abt (cycling journalist)

“Cycling is suffering.” — Fausto Coppi (5-time Giro winner, 2-time TdF winner)

More quotes on pain and cycling here.


gender policing · Rowing · stereotypes

Ladies, do you even lift? Gender and the norms of strength

YWCA women's rowing team carry their boat from Gardner's Boat Shed, Australian National Maritime Museum
YWCA women’s rowing team carry their boat from Gardner’s Boat Shed, Australian National Maritime Museum

Rowing requires strength. Friends think that it’s upper body strength and that I’ve chosen it as an additional activity to round out my cycling but it’s not quite that way. Says Wikipedia, “Rowing is one of the few non-weight bearing sports that exercises all the major muscle groups, including quads, biceps, triceps, lats, glutes and abdominal muscles. Rowing improves cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength.” That’s because you push off with your legs and you just need upper body strength to balance the strength in your lower body. It reminds me of track cycling that way.

I’m struck by how much strength is required both in the water and to lift the boats from the racks where they’re stored down to the docks for launching and vice versa. Sometimes I think a workout wasn’t that hard really and it’s not until I go to lift the boat out of the water that I realize how tired I am. Still, I like it that we carry our own boats. I commented on one of the other crews at a regatta recently having husbands (well, men anyway) help carry their rowing shell.

I told that story to a friend, a former Olympic rower, who said it was only in the 1970s that women were allowed to carry their own shells at the Olympics. That was the case even though the women regularly carried the boats for training. She thought it was a case of old fashioned norms about women and strength. It’s okay to be strong, to race, but you shouldn’t “show off.” Instead, men got to play the role of “knights on white horses” rescuing fair rowing damsels from the plight of being seen to be strong. She said the Canadians and Australians were first in changing the norms around boat carrying with the Brits and others following after. I don’t know the history here but it’s kind of fascinating. I like the story below too about when women’s rowing became popular as a sport. If you know any good books about the history of women’s rowing, feel free to recommend them!

This portrait depicts the crew of a Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) rowing team not far from shore. Read about the Trixie Whaling collection in Signals vol 102. The 1920s and 30s were big decades for women rowers as more women joined the workforce and women's team sports became popular. The 'lady rowers' of the early part of the century eventually emerged as popular women's teams in the 1920s and 30s. This period saw a boom in women's rowing through the formation of amateur associations, the successful staging of national sporting events and the increased coverage of women's sport in the national press. The Australian National Maritime Museum undertakes research and accepts public comments that enhance the information we hold about images in our collection. If you can identify a person, vessel or landmark, write the details in the Comments box below. Thank you for helping caption this important historical image.
This portrait depicts the crew of a Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) rowing team not far from shore. Read about the Trixie Whaling collection in Signals vol 102.
The 1920s and 30s were big decades for women rowers as more women joined the workforce and women’s team sports became popular. The ‘lady rowers’ of the early part of the century eventually emerged as popular women’s teams in the 1920s and 30s. This period saw a boom in women’s rowing through the formation of amateur associations, the successful staging of national sporting events and the increased coverage of women’s sport in the national press.
The Australian National Maritime Museum undertakes research and accepts public comments that enhance the information we hold about images in our collection. If you can identify a person, vessel or landmark, write the details in the Comments box below.
Thank you for helping caption this important historical image.